Itís not often I see the alarm clocking blinking 4:00 at me and spewing some radio commentatorís monologue to wake me up. That time of the morning is reserved for the owls and even the crickets have fallen silent by then.
But she was due to the hospital by 5:30 a.m. I hadnít slept well anyway, and you know how it is: If you canít sleep early, you finally fall into a deep sleep late and feel worse when the alarm goes off. I made coffee, adding an extra scoop for eye-opening properties, and went off for a shower.
By the time I left home, I was half-awake at least. A drizzle was falling. I picked her up, suitcase and a plastic bag full of medications. A floral housecoat, her gray hair neat and perfect.
Windshield wipers splashed rain away from my vision as we moved spinning through darkness. I tried to keep up my cheer. It had been a long, hard road to this point. A tangled path. The arguments have been bitter at times. Loud. Scathing. We come by our stubbornness honest, she and I. She passed it down to me, and I inherited another healthy dose from my father.
Sometimes we donít understand each other. I, the need for this procedure. She, my need for her existence. Flips of the coin frighten me. Sheís nearly 80. Terrified, I fought long, hard and rudely, I admit. Many times thatís the only way stubborn people like she and I can struggle. But at the eleventh hour, I surrendered fully, loaded her into the truck and we embarked through the drizzle.
At 6:30 they took her away and I sat in the room to wait out the hours. The rain had stopped but the skies were still swollen and dark. I brought a magazine and a book but could concentrate on neither.
When I was only a year or two old, she and my father brought me to Oschnerís for two surgeries to my eyes and two to my ears. Though my hearing is good now, my eyes are what we woodworkers call when describing lumber "random width, random length" or a mixed bag. At least I can see, which probably wouldnít have been possible without the surgeries. I never really thought about what it took for a parent to send a child off to surgery, the trust they put in a doctorís scalpel, in his steady hands, his unflinching scrutiny. I remember only the whiteness and stainless steel reflectivity of it all, and for some reason, a painting of Emmett Kelly, maybe frowning, maybe smiling, a Mona Lisa clown face, on the wall past the foot of my bed.
Nearly 40 years later, as they wheeled her out to surgery, I guess I know now. Thatís what all the debate had been about. Jeesh, I couldnít fathom why she didnít understand that sheís the only link I have left to the old family. Iím only moderately successful at being a Stouff, stumbling often as I carry a name that was borne proudly by French-Germans who in their homeland were not landed gentry but not commoners, either. When an American needed someone to oversee his sizeable plantation in St. Mary Parish at the outbreak of the Civil War, it was a Stouff and his family that he brought across the Atlantic to do so. Later, one of their children would marry an Indian princess, a descendant of Suns, a medicine woman and speaker to animals.
When I was a lad and the family was having supper at a restaurant on a Friday night, I finished off a piece of apple pie and, on innocent childish instinct, licked up a bit of the sweet filling left on the saucer. A sudden stinging blow to the back of my head reeled me, and my grandfather stuck his face up to mine, with his finger pointed at my nose to punctuate his fury: No Stouff has EVER licked a plate, and you damn sure ainít going to be the first, boy! Sounds rough, I know, maybe brutal, but I never let my dignity lax again, lest I disgrace a name that was engraved with what I perceived then to be centuries of honor.
She was also the last link for me to her parents, Edwin and Eremise, farmers who spoke little English at all but walked with quiet pride and dignity, taught their children right from wrong, and held trust and honesty in the highest regards.
One by one theyíve all gone to their creators and in the end left me and her here, with harsh words between us until the surrender. Of course I know I let my fear blind me, despite the surgeries at Oschnerís to restore my vision. Certainly I know she made a choice to flip the coin and relieve herself of pain. I swallowed it and went forward out of the drizzle and into the about-to-jump-out-of-my-skin waiting.
The nurse calls from the operating room every hour or so to reassure me. I wonder if they do it for all nervous, pacing family members or if they could just read the uncertainty and doubt and nearness of loss on my face. The flip of the coin that so terrified me.
But then sheís back, wheeled back into the room and alert. The doctor says it was a success and heís very upbeat and positive and somewhere along the line the drizzle has cleared and the dark clouds moved out with a breeze.
Links of a chain going back far, far behind us. Itís not that Iím truly alone, or will be. I have someone who loves me and I love greatly in return. But the links to the family are different. Theyíre a different kind of love. They become fewer and fewer and I follow them closely, fearing the opening of the welds, the rusting of the irons. But for now, theyíre holding fast, stubborn and full of pride, like she and I, who come by it honestly.
I stumble along, an only child, bearing the weight of lineage that might otherwise have been divvied up, remembering never to lick a saucer, never to be dishonest, never to allow myself to be taken advantage of and never, ever to forget from where she and I and they came.
Love you, mother. You know I do. And we got lots more stubborn, bull-headed arguments to go, you and I!